Getting started as an actor isn’t an easy task—the industry can be competitive, unwelcoming, and hard to navigate. So to give you a head start, we asked several industry professionals this question: What’s the one thing you wish all actors knew? According to acting coaches, casting directors, social media gurus, dialect coaches, and more, here are the top 15 things that all successful actors should know.
Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher
So much acting teaching is based on the age old advice that one should always “go with” his or her “intuition,” “trust” one’s “instincts,” and “follow all impulses,” yet there is almost no accompanying explanation of what impulses, instincts, or intuition actually are, let alone how one might learn to “trust” them.
Human beings are genetically hardwired to avoid harm—to shy away from confrontation, to run from fears. This is why the human race is still alive today. Extreme sportsmen and women, stunt performers, and masochists are the exception to the rule because danger gives them an adrenaline rush and creates drama for the viewer. Actors can harness the same “drama” by employing counter-intuition. Unless you are a masochist, to always go with your gut leaves you perpetually making safe choices. Don’t blame me, blame thousands of years of evolution.
Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” The safe bits are the dull bits. Take a risk by playing against your gut. It won’t kill you, but it will be extremely interesting.
D.W. Brown, L.A.-based acting teacher
An actor should know there’s nothing more important than playing moments. Whatever the character or style, there must be an authenticity only possible when the performer is totally present. To be present is to have your attention on the most important things happening around you, and an ever deeper connection to what those things mean.
David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. If your instincts are telling you to do something, then go ahead and do it. Only by doing things and getting results, either good or bad, will you know what is right for you. Your life and career are not the same as anyone else’s, so you have to do things for yourself and not take other people’s words for it.
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
Acting isn’t about “me,” it’s about “us.” I fell in love with acting as a child because I was raised in a very generous performing environment. I wish actors understood the power of generosity. That is much more powerful than an individual working for his own notoriety. Remember that synergy makes powerful individuals become a more powerful whole. We are a brotherhood of actors, writers, directors, and production crew members, and I, personally, believe that acting is about sharing your heart deeply with other human beings. Period. I even put together a Facebook group, Actors for Actors, to encourage a more supportive community. Please support each other.
Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media
There are many things you cannot control:
- You cannot control the audition. You can control your mindset.
- You cannot control the outcome. You can control your preparation.
- You cannot control your reputation. You can control your daily actions.
- You cannot control relationships. You can control your communication.
- You cannot control others. You can control yourself.
- You cannot control your career. You can control who and to what you say yes (or no).
Focus on what you can control: mindset, preparation, daily action, communication, self-control, who you surround yourself with, and how you spend your time!
Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
It’s really not as hard as we try to make it.
Brian O’Neil, NYC-based career coach
Thanks to the many Backstage Experts, I think this generation of actors is learning more and more that auditioning is a larger issue than just “getting the job.” Only one person can get the job, but by auditioning well and being called back, those who hire are getting to know who you are and what you can do. You are planting seeds for future auditions. You are auditioning for your reputation. When I was an actor, there was no tangible advice that I can recall. No books about “the business,” and certainly no panel of experts who contributed their perspectives on a daily basis. Bravo, Backstage!
Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
Actors are fed a lot of utter nonsense when it comes to developing their careers. The one thing that I desperately want all actors to know is that their personalities are their secret weapons and are that truly special sauce they can add to their scene work, character work, and auditions in order to create performances that are truly memorable. Too often, I see actors being sold the same tiresome (and just plain wrong) ideas that they need to strip away their personalities and build a character upon a blank canvas. Without actors being fearless and gracious enough to dig into their personalities to develop and enhance characters, we would never have some of the more memorable roles that Nicholson, Dunaway, Hackman, and Hepburn generously gave the screen. I constantly see actors getting suckered into someone selling them their “niche” or “type.” Get in the habit of rejecting those archaic concepts, as they only serve to box you in and suffocate your originality.
Mae Ross, founder of 3-2-1- Acting Studios
Actors should be kind to everyone in the production—make-up artists, hair stylists, grips, lighting, sounds techs, camera operators, prop masters, drivers, assistants, etc. They are all working hard to make you look good! Appreciate the crew.
Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
Let go of the outcome. If you are so fixated on getting the role and impressing the casting director, your audition will most likely suffer. Learn your lines, be prepared, understand your character, circumstances, and intention, and let the rest go. You will probably notice that things will go much smoother when you allow them to happen rather than making them happen.
John Swanbeck, director-author
I wish all actors knew the camera doesn’t like it when they try to give a great performance on film. This is because, on camera, the more actors try to give a great performance, the more they look like actors acting and the less believable they are as the human beings in situations. They want to “hit the ball out of the ball park” every time they play a scene, but it’s the fastest way to look unbelievable on film. This is why “the actor’s take” is usually the worst take. “The actor’s take” is the take the actor wants to do, after the director already has the take he or she wants. “The actor’s take” is the actor saying, “If you liked that take, wait until you see what happens when I really act it!” It’s noble, but misguided. The smartest approach to film acting is to create something very specific, a specific character, or a specific way to play the scene—something very, very specific, and then underplay it.
Pamela Vanderway, founder of DialectCoaches.com
If I could wave a magic wand and suddenly make every working actor understand one thing it would be that because the word acting is used to describe both an art and a business, it’s very important to be clear about the distinction between these two things, and to pay careful attention to both. Putting all of one’s energy into the development of one of these areas without paying as much attention to the other is a quick path to disappointment. Too many brilliant actors are not yet making their livings acting because they are timid or ignorant in the business arena, while at the same time another group of actors who have become great at marketing themselves end up working very briefly, but aren’t sustaining careers because they didn’t develop the kind of acting technique that is necessary to compete long-term in the industry. For every actor, I say: Take a good look at state of your craft and your business. They go hand in hand.
Craig Wallace, L.A.-based acting teacher
Know that in the end, your art is what will matter. It can be so easy, with the business/marketing aspect of acting taking up so much time, to forget why you wanted to do this in the first place. A good way to remember is to imagine it is all behind you and see if you, as an actor, left anything behind. I’m not talking about credits. (When all is said and done, credits don’t matter nearly as much as the quality of your life as an artist.) Did you stay on purpose 24/7, endeavoring to find the art in every situation, event, or person? Did you take everything in with an undefended heart, and did you give it all back with tenderness and passion? And finally, has your passion and skill left an undeniable artistic footprint that shifted the energy of the planet toward beauty and hope? Did you matter as an artist?
Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
Somewhere there is someone watching a television from their hospital bed. All those they knew and loved in their youth are gone now. They are alone. On that television screen is an actor. The work that actor does may well be the last connection to humanity this person ever has. Most say chasing Hollywood dreams is foolish, but a fully formed film actor can reach out to those the world has left behind and make them less alone. I want you to know that if you train hard enough, you can be an important artist—even in mainstream cinema. Achieve that level of power as a performer and you will be in a class that is all your own. And you yourself will never be lonely; you will never be broke; and you are not a fool.
I always try to remember that the same is true for myself as a film director. Greatness beckons us toward creative forms. It is achieved when we save each other from the alienation that haunts the human condition. But we will not rise to the level of this expectation, we will fall to the level of our training.
Ben Whitehair, L.A.-based actor
That the little stick on the side of your steering wheel is connected to lights which indicate to other drivers when you’re about to change lanes. Additionally, that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It can take years, even decades, to become an “overnight success.” Your job is to work really hard, be a good person, and enjoy the journey.
The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.